Life ain’t fair. Each of us can think of dozens of songs that should have been big hits but weren’t. I’ve been thinking about one of mine for the last day or so: “Trapped Again” by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which somehow failed to crack the Hot 100 in the fall of 1978 despite being an absolute rock and roll monster.
The Asbury Jukes formed on the Jersey Shore in 1974, emerging out of the same time and place as Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Springsteen’s longtime bandmate Miami Steve Van Zandt was an original Juke and the group’s producer, and Springsteen contributed several songs to the band’s first three albums. The band’s defining feature, however, was a horn section, five pieces and sometimes more, which made them sound like a party breaking out.
Apart from Springsteen, the Asbury Jukes attracted some famous collaborators on their early albums—Ronnie Spector, Lee Dorsey, the Coasters, Drifters, and the Five Satins—and they frequently covered the kind of oldies a New Jersey bar band would have had to know. They also recorded some insanely great original songs, most either written or co-written by Springsteen: “I Don’t Want to Go Home” (the title track from their 1976 debut album), “The Fever,” “This Time It’s for Real” (the title track from their second album in 1977), “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” “Talk to Me,” and of course, “Trapped Again.”
The latter two songs are from the 1978 album Hearts of Stone, which was supposed to turn Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes into stars, but it did not. They changed record labels after that, and Van Zandt, who had returned to the E Street Band in 1975, was out as producer. He was also out as principal songwriter, which left a void the band had trouble filling. As a result, the 1979 album The Jukes was a disappointment, although 1980’s Love Is a Sacrifice was better. The 1981 live album Reach Up and Touch the Sky captured the band in its natural environment, and it included a whole side of rock ‘n’ roll oldies. For several years after that, however, nothing much worked. They coupled with producer Nile Rodgers for 1983’s Trash It Up, which didn’t produce a hit; neither did the two albums that followed it.
In 1991, Southside Johnny and the Jukes reunited with Springsteen and Van Zandt for Better Days, which did indeed capture the sound of the band’s better days. Since then, Southside Johnny Lyon has been recording solo; various members of the Jukes have played with the Max Weinberg Seven; the current edition of the whole band has continued to tour, primarily on the East Coast and in the UK. Last year, Lyon and longtime Juke Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg collaborated on album of Tom Waits songs with a 20-piece big band, titled Grapefruit Moon.
But “Trapped Again” is always going to be the band’s monument, a show-stopper that would blow off the roof wherever they played it. Springsteen co-wrote it and guests on backing vocals, but the record is Lyon’s—or it would be if the horn section and bassist Al Berger didn’t steal it. (Berger’s bass line, tense and edgy, might be the very best thing about “Trapped Again.”) Although it was released as a single, it didn’t make the Hot 100 or the Bubbling Under chart, as best I can tell. It doesn’t show up among the thousands of radio surveys at ARSA, either.
Maybe the radio station music directors who listened to it and decided not to put it on the air weren’t playing it loud enough. Don’t make the same mistake yourself.
“Trapped Again”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
“This Time It’s for Real”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (get ’em both and more on a best-of disc for a ridiculous $7.98 here)
“Better Days”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (out of print)